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Aug 3, 2017 8:47 AM

Maine raises smoking age to 21, while driving and solar bills fail

The Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — The Legislature on Wednesday upheld a bill raising the age to buy tobacco in Maine to 21, while letting stand Republican Gov. Paul LePage's vetoes of bills targeting distracted driving and calling for an overhaul of solar regulations.

Lawmakers returned for their final day of the session to deal with bonds and vetoes. LePage, who named one of his dogs Veto, on Tuesday released a list of about two dozen vetoes of bills that he said revealed legislators' ineptitude and propensity for growing government with unfunded mandates and social engineering.

While the House GOP successfully defended a number of the governor's vetoes, the Legislature also rejected some of LePage's vetoes, including a bill to require the hiring of more public health nurses and another bill to raise the age to purchase tobacco to 21.

Starting July 2018, adults under 21 can no longer buy tobacco products in the state. Maine joins Hawaii, California and New Jersey, which last month, became the third state to raise the smoking age to 21.

"We have a public health crisis, people are addicted to deadly substances and they are dying," said Republican Rep. Karen Vachon, who called nicotine a "highly addictive drug" particularly for young people. Other lawmakers noted that Mainers have to be 21 to consume alcohol and marijuana, while opponents of the legislation stressed that it only targets the age to purchase, and not consume, tobacco.

LePage had argued the legislation is unfair for young people old enough to fight for their country.

Meagan Michaud, 21, who smoked while on break in Augusta, said she thought it's reasonable the law doesn't take effect until next year.

"In a way, it's a good idea to have it up to 21, when you can drink alcohol." she said.

One of the biggest fights this year has been over the solar bill, which saw extensive lobbying by utility companies, environmental groups and solar groups. The governor has long opposed solar policy that he says funnels above-market credits to rich solar owners.

But supporters say the governor's move lets stand solar rules that the governor himself criticized. The bill to prevent those rules and call for reform received a 28-6 override vote in the Senate, but an 88-48 vote in the House fell just short of the two-thirds needed.

"This rule will have a chilling effect on solar growth because there is no assurance that people will be able to sell excess power back to the grid," said Beth Ahearn, political director of Maine Conservation Voters. "This loss feels especially tough now, as we watch other states lead on clean energy legislation and partnerships in the face of federal backpedaling on climate action."

Lawmakers kicked back to January consideration of a bond to forgive up to 15 percent of an applicant's student debt each year. LePage has said he'll hit the road to fight for the bond and convince Republican opponents such a program is needed to save the rapidly aging state.

Many new laws become effective 90 days after the Legislature's official last day.

Lawmakers may return in the fall to consider an omnibus marijuana bill expected to include a tax hike on voter-approved recreational marijuana. Retail marijuana sales have been pushed back until at least February.

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